Telehealth expansion faces challenges from patients and physicians

The recent announcement by the Trump Administration to expand coverage for telehealth services for those covered by Medicare and Medicaid was a necessary step as COVID 19 takes its toll on the healthcare community. This benefit gives seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions ability to manage their health without a visit to their doctor’s office.  Those with chronic conditions need to continue treatment and monitoring by a healthcare professional (HCP) to help avoid potential emergency room visits or hospital stays during this time.

One major barrier to telehealth services is internet access, which lingers at 60% for seniors compared with 90% of the total adult population.  The pandemic has brought to light broadband limitations, especially in rural areas, at a time when many businesses and education communities are forced to move online.  But for many over the age of 65, even those with internet access, taking care of their healthcare online may be challenging. 

According to Kantar’s MARS Consumer Health Study, 40% of U.S. adults go online at least once a week for health and wellness information. However, this drops by half (22%) among those ages 65 and older. The majority of seniors’ online activities for health are accessing medical records, refilling prescriptions or purchasing medication. They are just as likely as the total adult population to look for information about a specific condition but 38% less likely to believe the internet is a good way to confirm a diagnosis and nearly 50% less likely to do research online before a doctor’s appointment.

Telehealth services have seen a surge in recent days as consumers reach out to consult with a doctor regarding novel coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms and requests for testing. It has been reported that many services can’t keep up due to IT issues and doctor shortages, despite telehealth start-up investment reporting nearly $6 billion over the past two years.  Kantar’s Physician Sources & Interactions Study reports that only 24% of physicians have ever participated in telehealth, and even fewer (14%) do so frequently or occasionally.  That number increases slightly for Family or Internal Medicine (16%) and nearly doubles (27%) for Psychiatry specialists.

Participation in telemedicine by physicians

 Mindsets are likely to change, with physicians reporting that 26% of their patients could be diagnosed or treated using telemedicine.  Additionally, a significant percentage (15%) of physicians report plans to adopt telemedicine in the next 12 months, while some do not, due to organizational restrictions or other reasons.

Despite encouragement from employers and health insurance, consumer adoption prior to COVID-19 has been low. Kantar reports that less than 3% of the U.S. adults report using telemedicine/online doctor’s visit in the past 12 months.  We are creatures of habit, the doctor’s office is where people go to be treated, with 3 out of 4 adults visiting at least once in the past 12 months.

Telehealth early adopters are what you’d expect: those between 25-45 years old, who are often juggling family and careers.  The MARS study indicates higher use among those with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.  Caregivers of a family member with a serious condition such as Asthma or Cardiovascular Disease are also more likely to use telehealth. There is higher use among the Hispanic population and those in the Southern and Western census regions.  An influencing factor may be that a number of states, such as California and Texas, have already mandated that telemedicine be covered as part of their Medicaid coverage. This seems to have made an impact: almost 5% of those on Medicaid report having used telemedicine, which is an 80% increase compared to the total population. Federally regulated Medicare is at only 2% telemedicine usage. Considering that approximately a third of the total adult population has government-provided insurance, there is a way to go before meaningful adoption.  

Our physical health is a primary concern for many of us and while our actions don’t always reflect our words, the MARS study reports that among those ages 18+, 50.3% are open to using telemedicine if made available. Among those age 65+ with Medicare, that drops to 41%. In a post-COVID-19 world those percentages will likely increase. 

Setting aside the immediate infrastructure issues and surge for testing, how can the healthcare industry convince communities with higher incidences of chronic conditions to adopt telehealth? MARS data shows that those who are ages 65+ with Medicare, who are willing to try telehealth, are influencers: friends and family come to them for health and wellness information.  This population is more likely to understand the benefits of technology for managing health and be more open to the potential for telehealth.  Reaching them with the right message through the right channels - whether television, health information sites, social media or local media - will be critical to impacting the overall senior population.

Data cited in this article:

Kantar’s 2019 MARS Consumer Health Study is an annual survey of 20,000 U.S. adults used by marketers and media to analyze and target consumer population groups. The study provides a full spectrum view of how healthcare consumers use media and other channels for information to manage their health.

Kantar’s 2019 Physician Sources & Interactions Report is an annual survey of U.S. physicians and HCP specialties used by advertisers, media and marketers to inform media decisions in the professional health market. The study provides detailed data on healthcare professionals’ preferences for keeping up-to-date on industry developments and how they interact with those sources of information including measurement of online and offline media, meetings, sales rep interactions, and more.

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